P.J. O’Rourke thinks Woodstock was juvenile, meaningless, and overhyped. I can’t speak for the beats and riffs of his generation, since I’ve never been too interested by them (notwithstanding a significant Jimi Hendrix phase in middle school).
But I love indie music. Belle & Sebastian, Pedro the Lion, Sufjan Stevens, and Sigur Ros (if they count). The melancholy, the bare guitar, the reaching vocals: they grab me.
The oversimple lyrics and multivarious guitar influences of Jack White, the whimsy and airiness of Sufjan, the childish voice of Daniel Johnston, even the fascinations and explorations of Bjork – I know I like, but is it .. childish?
I’m not the aesthetic aristocrat that fellow Humane Pursuer Brian Brown is. In arts as well as logic, I am cautious about developments that extend too far from experience. The more flair or baroque that is added … does not necessarily mean it is better art. So the simplicity of indie rock – from the pure lofi of a guitar and heart-singing emo, like early Dashboard Confessional, to even some of David Bazan’s more recent explorations into electronica (though I wish he’d leave it behind like Sufjan did) – appeals to me because the rock feels like it is less about the production of a piece, with a paradigm and market for purchase, than it is a continuing musical connection with the artist’s experience of the world, and my own. I like that. Good music is not simply something that takes skill to create.
But the next question, to anticipate the arguments of Mr. Brown, is whether music should lift you above your experience, or simply resonate with it. I’ll admit, indie music is not known for its resolution (though inspiring it can be). In some ways there is an analogy to how conservatives think of government: the state does not need merely to be a reflection of what society actually is at the present time, but should also contain some measure of our ideals of civilization (e.g. just because there are more people smoking pot, doesn’t mean we have to decriminalize), so that we can be held to standards higher than our immediate, chthonic experience – and in the process develop our experience to something higher and more cultivated. In terms of culture, you don’t just say about a wine, “I like it” like you would about orange juice.
So my question to myself, with regards to indie rock, is partly about whether I am reveling in simplicity, rather than moving on to more cultivated forms. I’ll admit there is a possibility, but I’d like to move on to a second part. When music characterizes itself as an art by irony and whimsy, harsh realities and childish delight, then what is its conception of artistic ideal? In many ways, we are talking about postmodern music, because the musicians themselves believe less in an eternal, ideal form than in creating something temporary but accessible. Just like nostalgia plays off our romanticizations of our remembered experiences, indie music often reacts against mainstream music or other indie music – whatever happens to have permeated popular culture most, they hold to be the most “fake” or at least trite. In this case it is very much relativistic.
So what is the purpose of music? I honestly don’t have an answer, but I’ll throw down my stake on this meandering post. Music is inherently experiential, and coheres more with spirit than word. Talking about wine is nothing like drinking it, even if the words help us understand it. It is true we must all move past the jejune reactions that characterize mere revolt. However, music, like poetry, often functions as an exploration of the soul and its interaction with the world. For that reason, I’ll continue to listen to Iron & Wine.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.